Today is my birthday. 9/11/10. Ah, so you noticed? I get that from time to time. The double-take, the slight pause, the occasional “So what’s it like?” question which, I suppose, is more rhetorical until I actually try to come up with an answer. Because in fact I don’t really have any answer. Because I don’t think I have fully internalized my feelings about this. Because maybe I try to not let things get to me. But I am going to try to explain how I feel today, the 9th anniversary of the day that, according to many people, I am supposed to suddenly feel differently about this day, my birthday that I used to celebrate as if it were any other day.
I think I’m a fairly optimistic person. I tend to see the positive among the negative most of the time. Nice years ago, as I was just waking up here in the West Coast, two airplanes crashed into New York’s World Trade Center, killing over 3,000 people in what became the single most important terrorist attack on our soil. It was a horrific event in our history, something that we’re still struggling to cope with. It was an event that altered our own way of thinking —our foreign policy at the time, our sense of security, our daily lives forever. The day has now officially become Patriot Day, not a national holiday, but a national day of remembrance in virtually every city and town in America, a day to honor not only the victims of the attack, but also the police and fire departments that have been forever identified with bringing order and relief to so many that day.
I woke up nine years ago as I always had, for several years now. My older sister, an early riser, traditionally would call me in the morning on September 11 (note that I didn’t used to say “9/11”) to wish me a happy birthday. In return she would get a grumpy, half-awake “Thanks” and then I’d usually get a little more sleep. She didn’t say this on that day. She asked me to calmly go to living room and turn on the TV. I didn’t know what she was talking about; perhaps someone had died or there was a TV show she wanted me to watch.
I got out of bed and literally crawled over to the TV and turned it on. Virtually very channel was focused on the World Trade Center, which was the scene of destruction and chaos, smoke rising from it. The headline on the bottom of the screen said “Plane Crashes into World Trade Center”. It was pretty shocking, for sure, but I remember thinking that maybe it was a small plane, maybe a Cessna, that lost its way. Until I began to hear more details —it was a passenger plane, with a lot of people on board….it was a premeditated attack. And then. A second plane came in and crashed into it again. This I saw with millions of TV viewers at that second, and then it just became something I would never forget. More pandemonium ensued, andsuddenly I sat transfixed at my TV for the next two hours or so, unable to tear myself away. And in the back of my mind, throughout that day, I struggled sometimes to remind myself that this was still my birthday.
Everything I did, everything anyone did that day was consumed by the events in New York City and the immediacy of live TV made sure that we were all near it, tuned in to every detail and every rumor, just as we tried to go about our days. But this was futile. My students couldn’t concentrate; they couldn’t understand, and I couldn’t either really, so the best recourse was to simply watch history or at least something that they would always remember for the rest of their lives.
I was especially intrigued, for example, by where the President was and how he was responding, and how his national security team at the White House had for one of the first times in its history, retreated to a bunker when they were afraid that it would be attacked. According to an interview set to premiere this weekend on London’s Channel 4, we now know that then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice angrily ordered President Bush not to return to the White House from Florida or Louisiana, where he was traveling, because of the perceived threats the White House was receiving. She apparently yelled at him and eventually hung up on him –which didn’t sit well with him but surely must have pleased his Secret Service staff.
Oh yeah, it was still my birthday. My students sang to me and there was a small cake, but there was just this twinge of regret almost and the realization that celebrating, even for the moment it took to blow out the candles and break out the plates, was just a little awkward. For the first time I had a feeling that something about this day had now been lost – a sense of innocence and happiness. Throughout the rest of that day, with people coming up and wishing me, somewhat awkwardly, a happy birthday, or in e-mails, I had to struggle with this all the time. I was consumed with what was happening so far away –what were the motives? Who did this? How did the hijackers take one of our planes and do this? What must it have been like to be inside the WTC? I also wondered whether if I had been closer, maybe I would have had a different reaction.
That evening a couple of friends invited me to dinner in the City. We met at an old place they knew I liked, Max’s Diner, on 3rd Street –comfort food, diner-style. As luck would have it, it was one of the only places open. San Francisco had essentially shut down for the night –by 7 pm or so, you couldn’t find many businesses open at all. In this now-deserted city, everyone had decided to go home. Back at the restaurant, the mood was not the normal bustling, servers moving around; it was entirely somber, all of us trying to enjoy our meals while also following the latest developments on the TVs on the walls. Some diners behind us, a young couple, were so overcome, they held each other and cried.
I was inspired to write this piece by a moving article in last Sunday’s Style section in the New York Times by Aimee Lee Ball, “A Day to Dance or to Weep?”. It focused on how those who have a 9/11 birthday have to cope with this now fateful day. Even the mundane things we are used to are somehow transformed into something different:
Many people believe it’s inappropriate to be festive
while the rest of the country observes a somber
anniversary. Every time they fill out a form at the
doctor’s office, show a driver’s license to rent a
car, clear passport control at the airport, or
otherwise present identification, they get a quizzical
response, somewhere between sympathy and shock
Ball’s article struck me because of what I thought I had forgotten about this day, or maybe that I had not sufficiently dealt with. She mentions how obstetricians have reported that women due to deliver on 9/11 for C-sections routinely call to postpone their dates in order to avoid what she calls a “tainted birthday”. She also cited a video that was made in 2002 by students in Manhattan’s PS 22 about those kids who, in their view, had their birthdays “taken away” and “ruined”; it’s a poignant video and for someone who is just like them in sharing this day, it is heartbreaking.
Yes, this is 9/11 and it’s a day that this country will never forget. Thousands died on this day and it’s hard to erase that fact, and I suppose I have to resign myself to not being able to fully capture all the whim and wonder of what this day used to represent for me. I mean, come on –it’s your birthday. Time for cake, singing, opening presents, celebration, a toast or two, a feeling that, yes, you’re getting a little older, and let’s face it, I am not a kid anymore though as the youngest in my family, I guess I will always feel like a kid for the rest of my life.
My life isn’t necessarily altered, however. It is what it is. It’s a day when we should take a moment and honor those who perished but also remember those who came to their assistance. And thus the optimism in me comes full circle: the goodness amid this tragedy is that we came together as a nation and we rapidly grew to support each other in any way we could. We assisted the victims and their families, and we made sure that we would not change who we were as Americans. It also created a new-found appreciation –not that we didn’t appreciate them before—for those who gave of their lives for public safety on that day and who continue to do so now.
Ball’s article, finally, mentions another 9/11 birthday “survivor”, Dahlia Gruen, a freshman at Northwestern University, who was 10 years old when her life changed as well. She was in Boston at the time, unsure why she was being sent home early from school; she thought maybe her parents were coming home early to help celebrate her birthday. The following year, she changed the way she would celebrate this day by eventually creating a website called Birthday Spirit . There, people who share a 9/11 birthday are invited to send in their thoughts about this day and are encouraged to “reclaim our day for good” –help a friend, donate to charity, provide some public service in the community.
I especially like one suggestion on the website that makes sense because it captures how birthdays are also about involving others, and taking out of it just being about you –and it reminds us all that we are connected to others in ways that don’t always anticipate. I think I am going to do this later this morning: I am going to take a birthday cake to my local fire station and show them that I they are also part of my special day as well.